Since losing starting C Marcin Gortat to a foot injury, the Phoenix Suns are 2-10 and looking worse by the day. The Indiana Pacers, on the other hand, have been missing their best scorer, Danny Granger, almost the entire season and have thrived.
The difference? Better collective talent, and an excellent, defense-based gameplan.
If you are looking for a model the Suns might want to emulate, you might want to look at the Indiana Pacers for inspiration. After making it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004, the Pacers declined slowly. Eventually, they missed the playoffs for 4 straight seasons from 2006-2010 under a coach (Jim O'Brien) that had them (failing to regularly) score from the perimeter while playing middling defense.
When the team stopped progressing, they handed the reins to untested Frank Vogel, who had never been a head coach before (though he had spent 10 years as an NBA assistant). Vogel instituted a defense-first mentality that used an efficient inside-out offensive scheme (offensive rating jumped from 26th to 7th), took the Pacers to the playoffs and now has them seeded third in the East with an even more focused defense sans Danny Granger's offense.
Their best draft moves were getting lucky with Danny Granger (17th overall in 2005) and then Paul George and Lance Stephenson (10th and 40th in 2010). But that's the highlight of their draft prowess using their own picks during that timeframe.
They traded erstwhile All-Star Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto for the rights to rookie C Roy Hibbert (17th in 2008), who went on to exceed expectations along with Danny Granger.
Hibbert and Granger developed with a ragtag group of middling players who wouldn't be starting for any playoff team, and certainly didn't in Indiana.
Then the 2010 draft came along (George) and they fully revitalized their team in 2011. The Pacers bookended the 2011 lockout by trading the 15th overall pick (Kawhi Leonard) to San Antonio for George Hill, and later signing free agent David West before the 2011-12 season finally started.
Since then, the Pacers have been on the rise in the East without boasting a top-10 player in the NBA. They are doing it with defense - ranked #1 overall this season by a wide margin.
The Phoenix Suns could do well to emulate this pattern. They already have the several-seasons-outside-the-playoffs thing going, and won't pick up a franchise-changer in the upcoming draft. But that's where the similarities end.
At some point, the Suns have to start trending back up. It won't happen in these next 9 games, but this summer is crucial to start turning the tide in the right direction.
The Suns reportedly want to win with defense going forward, and getting the right coach into position to do so (like the Pacers did with Vogel) is vital. Is Lindsey Hunter that coach? Maybe. Maybe not. The Suns have to put Hunter against a number of other candidates this spring to find out.
Vogel was in a different position than Hunter is in right now. In fact, Hunter's position more closely resembles Jim O'Brien's in Indiana - the guy who presided over the team while they got younger, after the playoffs slipped away.
Vogel took over a team that was already young and ready to implement his teachings, while Hunter is still going through the roster transition. Will next year be different? Who knows, at this point. Depends on how the summer goes.
Goran Dragic missed the first game of the season series, where the Suns lost in Indiana 97-91. The Suns played a tough game but came up short at the end. Telfair put up 19 and 6 in Dragic's absence, while Marcin Gortat had 15 and 10 against Roy Hibbert. The Suns don't have either of those players tonight.
This is Indiana's only trip to Phoenix this season.
The Pacers' #1 defense in the NBA face the NBA's worst overall offense since Hunter took over. Expect starting point guard Goran Dragic back in the lineup tonight, along with Jermaine O'Neal.
The Suns like to "get up" for playoff teams, so maybe tonight will be a revelation of effort and execution like we saw against Houston, the Lakers and New Jersey. But don't count on it.
The Pacers are on a roll while the Suns are getting rolled. Expect more of the same, no matter who starts for the Suns tonight.
Tonight's game against Indiana will be the FIRST EVER NBA game to feature two pairs of brothers facing off against each other. Indiana boasts Tyler and Ben Hansbrough, while the Suns boast Marcus and Markieff Morris.
Let's get ready to rumble!
At some point in the second or fourth quarter, all four brothers will be on the court.
One of the four (either Markieff or Tyler) will have a significant game, while the other three lay an egg.
Although this topic has been discussed ad nauseum on this site, the recent actions by the Suns have added a new wrinkle to what has been a contentious, divisive topic.
I've already addressed this issue at multiple points as the season has muddled along towards its inexorable end.
But 'tis there hope for these vapid Suns? For in the lottery what dreams may come, But losing has given the front office pause: To abrogate the calamity of conbuilding...
- Phoenix Suns Hamlet style: to tank or not to tank: that is the question, Jim Coughenour, Brightside of the Sun
I want the Suns to lose. I want my team to lose. Every win is like a nail in the coffin of our draft lottery positioning. I'm not cheering against my team, I'm cheering for them. I'm cheering for them to take a step back to take two forward. I'm cheering for something better than the development of middling young players as the consequence of a lost season.
- Message to the Phoenix Suns: Sometimes when you win you really lose..., Jim Coughenour, Brightside of the Sun
In my self-absorbed, delusional world I'd like to take the credit for providing the Suns with the impetus to adopt their new pansophic philosophy towards future building.
But the Suns new strategy has been noticed by a host of notable writers, pundits and professionals that trump my insignificant leanings.
Eventually, cluelessly oblivious teams like the Suns are going to ruin it for all the teams (like the current Magic and Cavaliers) who are actually a bit suave about their tanking. So yes: Phoenix can't even lose properly. Well done, y'all!
- The Suns are unabashedly tanking, Tom Ziller, SBNation
The move to hold Goran Dragic out of Wednesday night's loss at Utah and Thursday night's home game against Sacramento for rest was the first indication that the Suns might be tanking because of the timing. As the Suns held out their top player without injury, Utah remains one game behind the eighth-place Los Angeles Lakers, who must turn over a draft lottery pick to the Suns if they miss the playoffs. Phoenix gets Miami's pick at No. 30 if the Lakers do make the playoffs.
- Phoenix Suns coach Lindsey Hunter opts to give Goran Dragic break, Paul Coro, Arizona Republic
We then turn our attention to the Phoenix Suns, who are "resting" their best player for a couple of games, and getting blown out by their opponents while doing so. We discuss the tanking option in the NBA, and while we don't necessarily have a problem with it in Phoenix, the lack of a long-term plan in place does seem to be troubling for the franchise.
- Pro Basketball Talk Podcast, Brett Pollakoff, NBC Sports
Since these luminaries chimed in on the topic, what would the article be without me reiterating my viewpoint on the subject (since I've been fairly vague and nebulous with my opinion).
The Suns have employed the correct strategy to put the franchise in the best possible position moving forward. Sometimes you have to lose a few battles to win the war. The coaching change, roster attrition, youth movement and (finally) resting the team's best players have all culminated in an approach with a vested interest in the future. I don't see the situation as a contretemps or egregious violation of basketball purity, either. It's having broad perspective. It's sacrificing short term for long term gain... just like playoff teams do when they rest their stars to prepare for the playoffs.
#No more Pyrrhic victories
Finally, I got some of the other, more respected and reputable, writers on the site to weigh in on the controversial issue. And by some I mean Dave. Please note that all writers were asked to participate, so those who didn't are either apathetic or frightened to comment. Or maybe they just didn't get the email yet.
The Suns are doing the best thing they can do at this time, in these circumstances. While the players at the top of the draft are not franchise-changers, they are better than anything on the Suns current roster so that's worth fighting for. The worst record has rarely won the #1 pick, but the Suns need to increase their odds any way they can to get the right to choose their next guy.
- Dave King, Brightside of the Sun
*I want to thank Seth Pollack for giving me the inspiration for this article. I'm basically a parasite that feeds off of his brilliance.
Only six other times in franchise history have the Phoenix Suns reached 50 losses for an entire season. They reached that low with nine games remaining and a chance at being the second worst team ever in the valley.
Read into it as you may, but the Phoenix Suns (23-49) have decided to sit out their best player Goran Dragic for two games that included last nights loss to the Playoff chasing Utah Jazz and tonight against their lottery foe tonight; the Sacramento Kings (26-46).
He is leading the team in scoring, assists, steals, free-throws (made and attempted), and minutes played. Taking him out of the line-up is the basketball equivalent to taking the engine out of a 1971 Ford Pinto.
It is still a Ford Pinto with or without an engine.
The Kings pose some challenges without Dragic in the line-up as they are fueled by Isaiah Thomas and paced inside by DeMarcus Cousins. Those two will look to take advantage of the Suns being without their best two players, who happen to play the same exact position as the Kings duo.
(Recent) History Lesson
In the three previous games this season the Suns have won two by double-digits, one on the road and one at home. The Kings took care of business in the last meeting however, a 121 point outburst, which was the fourth most given up this season.
Head-to-Head (past four seasons including Playoffs)
Suns: 105.7 PPG (10 wins)
Kings: 99.7 PPG (4 wins)
Over the previous four seasons the Suns have controlled the series between the divisional rivals. This season has been no different other than the last encounter as the Kings are still trying to find their identity with a young roster and the Suns are muddled in a rebuild.
DeMarcus Cousins vs. Suns: 20.3 PPG 10.7 RPG 48.3 FG% (9 games)
Luis Scola vs. Kings: 15.8 PPG 8.5 RPG 52.7 FG% (21 games)
There are only three teams that Cousins averages 20+ PPG and 10+ RPG against. The Suns are one of those teams.
PG - Kendall Marshall vs. Isaiah Thomas
C - Luis Scola vs. DeMarcus Cousins
Potential Suns Inactives: Marcin Gortat (Foot)
Potential Kings Inactives: James Johnson (Personal)
Marshall was the 13th Overall pick in 2012, an All-American, and a highly regarded point guard prospect on every level he has played. So far, through one season, he under-performed expectations. Thomas was the 60th Overall pick in 2011 and has become a starter with his hard work.
Two opposites if there ever was in a point guard match-up.
It going to be up to Marshall to keep up with the speedster point guard to allow the Suns the chance to win the game.
Interesting Stat: Free-Throws
This season the Kings are the fourth most foul prone team in the NBA while the Suns take the fifth fewest free-throws as a team in the league. Something has to give at the line with these two teams.
Meaningless Stat: 119
That is the combined amount technical fouls called on the Suns and the Kings. Jermaine O'Neal and Cousins are the most volatile of the two.... There is that.